Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Yvette Nolan

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Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan is a playwright and director. Her latest play is The Unplugging (Playwrights Canada Press), a post-apocalyptic tale of two women expelled from their village for the crime of being past child-bearing age.

Today Yvette speaks to Open Book about the allure of the apocalypse, roles for women in theatre and the intimidating effects of self-Googling.

Open Book:

Tell us about your play, The Unplugging.

Yvette Nolan:

I started to write The Unplugging when I knew I was leaving Native Earth. In the eight years I ran the company, I had written lots of short plays, lots of community-commissioned, issue-specific works, but I had not written a big play, because I just didn’t have the time in my day and the space in my head. But when I knew I was leaving, I figured I’d better find out if I could still do it. I had read Velma Wallis’ retelling of the Athabaskan story about two old women who were banished from their community in a time of need, because they were perceived to be useless, and that gave me the jumping off point. I have always been a bit of an apocalyptist — I don’t really believe in this world — and so I moved the story into the 21st century, and began to write.


What drew you to a post-apocalyptic environment? What do you think motivates our enduring interest in post-apocalyptic scenarios?


The world is moving so quickly, I think it is quite natural to look forward to a time when our haste leads to destruction. Think of it, in my lifetime, we have become dependent on this thing called the internet, we have created the test-tube baby, we have moved war from hand-to-hand combat to “unmanned” drones. My grandparents had neither electricity nor running water. In my lifetime, dozens of species have become extinct. In my lifetime, AIDS, antibiotic-resistant superbugs. I think anyone who is not aware of the possibility of an apocalypse is a miracle of self-delusion.

I had been in Toronto when the big blackout happened, and I realised how unprepared we are for any kind of rupture. It was hot, so hot, and people were out watering their lawns, without any awareness of how the water got there, that the city reservoir needed power to refill, and there was only about 24 hours of water before it ran out. Many people were very Pollyanna about neighbours and community, but I suspected that that sentiment would only last about three days before the bad guys just started showing up at the door with guns to take what they wanted, like that scene in Don McKellar’s Last Night

I grew up with what was probably an unhealthy love of the apocalyptic stories: Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, Stephen King’s The Stand, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

What is really astounding to me is that in spite of our enduring interest in post-apocalyptic scenarios, we seem unwilling or unable to stop participating in our inevitable destruction. We still drive cars that need gas, fly around the world, have no idea or don’t care where our food comes from, how it was grown or how that process may be polluting our water or the land. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”.


It is still comparatively rare to have two female characters as the focus of a show in this way. Were you hoping to create interesting, complex roles for women when you wrote this play?


I have been writing plays for over twenty years, and it sometimes feels like change is sooooooo slow. Still so few meaty roles for women — girlfriend, wife, prostitute — I feel like I have spent my career trying to write roles for women, then trying to get them produced. So many artistic directors saying, we don’t do women’s issues plays. What does that mean? If women have central roles, it’s about women’s issues? What issues are only for women?

Then as I aged, I realized I was becoming invisible. It felt like the only power women seem to be allowed is whatever they wield through their sexuality, their physical beauty, their power to reproduce. So as a woman ages — as I aged — I became dispensable, irrelevant. And yet, as we age, if we are lucky, we get wiser, do we not? All the lessons, all the knowledge we have accrued over our youth and adulthood, are those not valuable? So one of the things that drove The Unplugging was the idea of eldering up, of being a resource to your community because of what you have learned.

It’s ironic, but the fact that the play is called The Unplugging is due to the fact that the premiering theatre did not think it could market the play with its original title, Two Old Women. I am not knocking the theatre, they were wonderful to work with, but I think the fact that they saw the title as an obstacle speaks to where we are — or are not — in society, when it comes to the status of women, and especially older or elder women.


What is your writing process like? Do you workshop throughout your writing or do you prefer to work alone until you have a finished product?


My process varies from project to project, but I like to have a first draft of something before hearing it read aloud. The Unplugging was unlike any other play I have ever written, in that it arrived one scene after the other, in order, beginning, middle, end. A small miracle. I had very little time, I was still running the theatre, and my colleague had given me a deadline — to have something for inclusion in our festival at the end of January. I had to carve out time, and my partner very graciously left the house on Saturday and Sunday mornings for four hours and went to the library. And I would sit at my laptop at the dining room table — I didn’t have a home office at that point because I did all my work at Native Earth — and I would open up and start writing. I bit Donna Michelle St Bernard’s style, writing a scene number and name at the beginning of each scene, and the words came.

And my partner would text from the library at about 11:45 and say “is it lunchtime yet?” and I would say, yes, you can come home, and I would save and close. I started writing mid-November, and I wrote Blackout (end of play) on a plane over Minneapolis the day before the festival started, January 23, 2010. Never had a play arrive like that before. So quick. So complete. I discovered I could still write plays, in fact, I was better at it now, after teaching it, after the hiatus from the practice. And I guess I had a lot to say that had been bouncing around in my head, waiting for me to give it voice.


What were you reading while you worked on this project? Were there any texts or plays you found inspiring or which contributed to the shape of your narrative?


The genesis was Velma Wallis’ Two Old Women, I found inspiration in Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, and the Maori/Cook Island playwright Miria George’s and what remains… And there is a healthy dose of Joni Mitchell inspiration in the play. The poets…. Yeats (The Second Coming), Robert Frost (Fire and Ice), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Carrion Comfort), Emily Dickinson (hope is the thing with feathers). I actually started writing the play in Mexico in November 2009, on a brief vacation, a the time that the whole world was talking about the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world, purported to be 2012, so that probably informed the writing.


What are you working on now?


A book on Native theatre. When I was at Native Earth, I realised that when I googled Native theatre Canada, very often, it was my name that popped up, in interviews, or chapters, or panels. That frightened me a little, because I had very often done those interviews or panels extempore, and they ended up being quoted as gospel. I thought perhaps it was time to be more mindful about what I said, to actually think about what I knew, and to set it down in a place and in a way that it might both document the things that had happened and engender discussion.

Yvette Nolan is a playwright, dramaturg and director. Her plays include BLADE, Job’s Wife,Video, Annie Mae’s Movement, Scattering Jake, Donne In, and What Befalls the Earth. She is the editor of Beyond the Pale and co-editor, with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, of Refractions: Solo. She has been the writer-in-residence at Brandon University, Mount Royal College and the Saskatoon Public Library, as well as playwright-in-residence at the National Arts Centre. She is a past president of Playwrights Union of Canada and of Playwrights Canada Press. Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to an Algonquin mother and an Irish immigrant father, raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she lived in the Yukon and Nova Scotia before moving to Toronto to take the helm at Native Earth Performing Arts where she served from 2003-2011.

For more information about The Unplugging please visit the Playwrights Press Canada website.

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Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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